MORROW The city of Morrow may lose its figurative shirt if officials go through with plans to hold a leadership training conference next month.
The city is planning to host sustainable leadership training May 21 featuring “human capital developer” Dr. Jeffrey Magee. City Manager Jeff Eady and Human Resources Director Becky Zebe told the city council this week the event could cost at least $6,000. That includes a $5,000 speakers fee for Magee, they said.
There’s one problem. The possibility that Morrow will lose a lot of money on the conference is a very real threat that has officials worried. It has the potential to echo a controversial commercial development that cost the city millions of dollars.
“It’s been moving kinda slow,” Eady said. “We’re not quite getting the response we hoped for.”
Zebe and Eady said the city still has a short window of opportunity — a few days to be exact — to cancel the event, but Morrow is in a precarious situation if it chooses to go forward. It stands lose at least $3,400 if support and interest don’t dramatically improve.
The problem is not enough people are signing up to participate in the conference and businesses aren’t lining up to sponsor it.
Morrow walking a financial tightrope
As of the beginning of this week, 43 people had registered for the conference and there was only one solidly committed corporate sponsor. Most of the registrants are police officers from Morrow and neighboring law enforcement agencies. The city needs to sell all 192 conference spots — at $50 each — to begin coming close to paying for food expenses and some of Magee’s fee.
But both a packed house and multiple businesses sponsors are needed to make the conference a success.
Zebe is in charge of planning the conference and she told the city council Tuesday that even if the event is sold out, it won’t be a success without more sponsors.
“We would not, without sponsorships, break even — even if we sold 192 tickets with the $50 fee,” Zebe said. “Sponsorships was key and that’s not coming in well either.”
The current $6,000 price tag for the event is what it will cost if 43 people attend. If more people sign up, the cost of providing food will go up which will mean the event will cost more to stage. Zebe said it would cost about $11,000 to stage the conference if every ticket was sold.
Eady said one drawback is that Magee has a speaking engagement on the north side of Atlanta scheduled for the day after Morrow’s conference.
“The ability to pull anybody north of I-20 — they’re going to go to the other side,” Eady said.
Eady said he recommended Magee as a speaker to the council and Zebe because he’d heard him speak twice and thought “he’s an excellent leadership coach.”
Echoes of Olde Towne
Morrow has found itself in trouble before when the city put more money into a project than it got back. It poured more than $12 million into the Olde Towne Morrow commercial development at Southlake Mall from 2007 until 2009. It was a group and shops and renovated old homes that was intended to be a new shopping attraction for the city.
The project yielded a net profit of about $10,000 in its one year of operation and the financial losses were just one of a myriad of reasons why it was shut down at the end of 2010.
Former City Manager John Lampl was indicted in 2011 for his management of Olde Towne’s conceptualization and birth.
Before he became mayor in 2011, Joseph “J.B.” Burke was an outspoken critic of Olde Towne and ran for office on a platform of fixing the project and preventing similar situations from happening again.
It has not turned a profit. It has sat vacant for more than two years and become a target for vandals.
A bad approach?
The potential financial loss for the city on the conference lead to friction Tuesday between Zebe and Burke.
Burke, whose career has been in hotel management, criticized Zebe’s marketing of the event and her efforts to recruit sponsors. She told the council she sent out invitation emails to city managers, human resources officials, city clerks and vendors around metro Atlanta.
Zebe also said she visited about 18 businesses unannounced to solicit sponsorships.
“I wouldn’t suggest that,” Burke said. “From my background, solicitation is not well-received ... It’s respectful to call people and let them know you’re coming. Just to think that if you show up, they’re going to drop what they’re doing to see you and you’re going to ask them to give you money — I wouldn’t suggest you do that.”
Burke later criticized Zebe’s approach towards inviting people to the event by email.
“Your approach is totally wrong,” Burke said. “It’s just junk mail and people are going to throw it in the trash. You need to get on the phone and call these people.”
Zebe fired back, arguing that she was confident the groups she was inviting would take her emails seriously.
“There are contacts that I have that I’ve sent them to that don’t treat my emails as junk mail,” she said. “When I send them information, they will read that information.”
Zebe and Eady said they have until May 1 to back out of hosting the conference. However, they warned the city’s reputation could be hurt if the event is canceled.
“It just does not look wonderful,” Zebe said.